By Steve Elliott of Toke of the Town
Today, March 30, 2011, marks an unhappy birthday. Fifty years ago, marijuana became illegal worldwide.
The Single Convention Treaty on Narcotic Drugs, which started the international policy of cannabis prohibition, was signed on this day in 1961. In accordance with the treaty, marijuana is still illegal in every country on Earth -- including the Netherlands, where laws remain on the books despite official policy "tolerating" its use.
The Single Convention Treaty was the handiwork of the powerful ex-director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger, architect of the first federal cannabis prohibition law, the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act.
"Anslinger had pushed for a treaty against cannabis in order to shore up the act's dubious constitutionality under U.S. law," said Dale Gieringer, director of California NORML. (The act was later declared unconstitutional for other reasons, only to be supplanted by the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, which kicked off Nixon's War On Drugs.)
"Today, the international treaty stands as the principal cause of prohibition-related crime and violence worldwide with drug wars from Mexico to Afghanistan plus the criminalization of millions of users," Gieringer said
Next month marks another ignoble anniversary in the War On Drugs: the centennial of the first state anti-cannabis law.
On April 29, 1911, Massachusetts enacted a law making it illegal to sell or possess cannabis "or other narcotics" without a prescription. "Ironically, there is no record of any public concern about cannabis at the time," Gieringer said. "Marijuana," the Mexican slang word which became the modern name for cannabis rolled into cigarettes, was still virtually unknown.
"The Massachusetts law was the work of Progressive Era pharmacy regulators, who were chiefly concerned about other habit-forming drugs like opium and cocaine, but included cannabis for the sake of completeness," Gieringer said. "Ironically, only after the law was passed did recreational marijuana use become popular."
It is noteworthy that the Massachusetts law expressly allowed for prescription use, as cannabis was still generally recognized as a pharmaceutical drug. Only in 1937 was medical use of cannabis suppressed at Anslinger's insistence, a baseless and failed federal policy that unaccountably remains in place today.
With a wave of hysteria only encouraged by anti-immigrant fears of Mexican laborers, other states quickly adopted anti-cannabis laws of their own. California, Maine, Indiana and Wyoming all instituted statewide marijuana prohibition in 1913.
As in Massachusetts, these laws were passed not in response to any public concern about cannabis, but at the instigation of government officials with an interest in drug regulation.
"Today, it is these same government bureaucrats and drug cops who remain the strongest supporters of the failed prohibitionist policies that keep them employed," Gieringer said. "A century of experience shows conclusively that cannabis prohibition has failed."
In the 50 years since the Single Convention Treaty was signed, marijuana use has exploded. Cannabis is now the world's second most popular psychoactive drug after alcohol, with more than 100 million users.
One hundred years after the first anti-cannabis law, a popular rebellion against prohibition has begun, with repeal bills being proposed in Massachusetts, California, Washington, and Colorado.
"As in the Arab nations, out-of-touch government officials can be expected to remain the chief source of resistance to political reform in 2011 and beyond," Gieringer said.